’Tis love, the fairy tales tell us, that turns dross into gold and clods into gods. So it seems appropriate that about halfway through the leaden fairy-tale-theme costume party called “Shrek the Musical,” which opened Sunday night at the Broadway Theater, it’s a love scene that gives us a startling glimpse of true happiness.
That vision arrives when the hitherto adversarial hero and heroine of this latest screen-to-stage musical, adapted from the popular 2001 animated film and the children’s book by William Steig, recognize they just might have something in common. Never mind that this something appears to be a shared affinity for breaking wind and belching really loudly.
As embodied by Brian d’Arcy James and Sutton Foster in a breezy song called “I Think I Got You Beat,” Shrek the ogre and Fiona the princess find a chemistry that’s more than merely gaseous. In the best tradition of screwball comedy, they transform glowery friction into dewy-eyed romance. And a show that has been trying way too hard to entrance us suddenly relaxes into goofy, genuine charm.
Such metamorphoses happen but seldom in “Shrek,” directed by Jason Moore, with a score by Jeanine Tesori and a book and lyrics by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Aside from a few jolly sequences (nearly all featuring the hypertalented Ms. Foster), this cavalcade of storybook effigies feels like 40 blocks’ worth of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, accompanied by an exhaustingly jokey running commentary.
“Shrek,” for the record, is not bad. The maiden Broadway venture of DreamWorks Theatricals (a stage-oriented arm of the company that made the movie), in association with Neal Street Productions, it is definitely a cut above the most recent offerings from its creators’ direct competitor in cartoon-inspired musicals, Walt Disney. Unlike that company’s “Tarzan” and “Little Mermaid,” “Shrek” has the virtues of a comprehensible plot and identifiable characters. And as designed by Tim Hatley, whose set captures some of the feral majesty of Steig’s original drawings, the show isn’t the eyesore that Disney’s fish story is.
But “Shrek” does not avoid the watery fate that commonly befalls good cartoons that are dragged into the third dimension. What seems blithe and fluid on screen becomes lumbering when it takes on the weight of solid human flesh.
The pop-cultural jokes and “Fractured Fairy Tales”-like spoofery that are the currency of “Shrek” (and Mr. Lindsay-Abaire sticks close to the screenplay) passed in the wink of a mischievous eye on screen. Onstage they seem to linger and grow old. And morals about inner beauty and self-esteem that went down easily enough in the movie stick in the throat when amplified into power ballads with lyrics explaining that “What makes us special makes us strong.”
Then there’s the issue of performers having to dress up to resemble fantasy illustrations, a process that, to put it kindly, tends to cramp expressive acting. As the title character, a misanthropic green ogre who learns to love, the talented Mr. James is so encumbered with padding and prosthetics that your instinct is to rush the stage and tap his head to see if he’s really in there.
He’s not the only one competing with his costume. As the evil, psychologically maimed Lord Farquaad, the very droll (and normally tall) Christopher Sieber is required to walk on his knees, with tiny fake legs dangling before him — an initially funny sight gag that soon drags, despite being the subject of countless inventive variations. As Shrek’s sidekick, the sassy Donkey, Daniel Breaker at least appears to be having a good time in his furry coverall, letting his fetlocks go limp in dismay and cutting up like a hirsute Little Richard at the Mardi Gras.
What with a whole phalanx of bedtime-story archetypes, led by a falsetto-voiced John Tartaglia as Pinocchio, as well as a giant pink dragon puppet with rolling eyes, the show starts to feel like a Christmas panto, one of those silly seasonal shows beloved in Britain and bearable because, like Santa Claus, they come around only once a year. That’s one parallel that came to my mind. The other, when I was feeling less charitable, was of seeing out-of-work actors dressed up as tacos and French fries in a mall food court.
I never felt that way when Ms. Foster was onstage, though. A performer of eight-cylinder energy and eye-searing presence, she can be a bit grating in earnest parts (as in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Little Women”). But more recently, with “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein,” she has emerged as an inspired, take-charge musical comedian in the tradition of Danny Kaye and Carol Burnett. (Seeing her in her damsel-in-distress attire, I wondered what she might make of the loud-mouthed princess in “Once Upon a Mattress,” the vehicle that made Ms. Burnett a star.)
Fiona’s big showstopper, the second-act curtain raiser “Morning Person,” is the one number in “Shrek” that gets everything right. Up to that point Josh Prince’s choreography had rarely transcended Radio City Music Hall rote, and Ms. Tesori’s score had seemed cut from the same shiny synthetic pop metal of most youth-oriented Broadway shows since “Wicked.” The staging by Mr. Moore (who knows from puppets, having directed “Avenue Q”) had seemed to move on a gag-by-gag basis.
But “Morning Person,” in which Fiona sings of the joys of a new day with an enthusiasm that crushes whatever crosses her path, has bona-fide wit. Whether blithely ripping the antlers off a deer or tapping like Ann Miller with a chorus line of rats, Ms. Foster manages both to make fun of and exult in classical musical-comedy moves while creating a real, full character at the same time. That the number works as well as it does has a lot to do with there being real human warmth (heck, make that fire) at its center.
Fiona is fun. No wonder Shrek falls in love with her. And when Mr. James responds to her, you realize that there’s a winning character (not to mention a very fine actor and singer) inside that fright suit. I know, I know, that’s what the show’s about: the beauty within. But it seems to me that if “Shrek” had more generally heeded its own advice about substance versus surface, it might have come closer to casting the spell that lets Broadway shows live happily ever after.
If you don't think flatulence is funny, chances are you won't buy the theory that it also can be a means of seduction.
Ah, well, your loss. Because when the stinky, cranky, altogether irresistible title character of Shrek the Musical (* * *½out of four) falls in love, scatological humor inevitably is involved. And the romance is as poignant as the jokes are, well, pungent.
Like other musical adaptations of hit films, Shrek, which opened Sunday at the Broadway Theatre, leans heavily on winking satire. There are the usual nods to more fully realized shows, from Gypsy to A Chorus Line, and Jeanine Tesori's blandly ingratiating score doesn't feature any songs you're likely to be humming 20 years from now.
But Shrek, which draws from William Steig's book about a lovable ogre and the DreamWorks animated movie that it inspired, is nonetheless a triumph of comic imagination with a heart as big and warm as Santa's. It is the most ingeniously wacky, transcendently tasteless Broadway musical since The Producers, and more family-friendly than that gag-fest.
Producers director/choreographer Susan Stroman's exhilarating work was an obvious reference point for Shrek director Jason Moore, who is gloriously abetted by set, costume and puppet designer Tim Hatley. There are tap-dancing rats, a female dragon with soulful eyes (and a throbbing libido) and, in human form, an array of drolly determined fairy-tale outcasts who share Shrek's quest to fit in without conforming.
Librettist/lyricist David Lindsay-Abaire portrays that struggle with wry wit and the gentlest pathos, and those qualities could not be better served by the cast.
Leading man Brian d'Arcy James may have to conceal his boyish good looks, but his Shrek is an adorable hero and, despite his blubbery prosthetics, an expressive one. James' delightfully playful, at times plaintive performance leaves no doubt this guy's just a chartreuse cherub.
Sutton Foster is predictably plucky as Princess Fiona, who teaches Shrek that beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and that pretty girls can make loud, disgusting noises, too.
And as anyone who caught Daniel Breaker's enchanting star turn in last season's Passing Strange would suspect, the young actor is perfectly hilarious as Shrek's goofy sidekick, Donkey (represented on screen by the voice of Eddie Murphy).
All these assets do not add up to a great musical: That, by definition, would require great music. But Shrek is pretty grand entertainment, and to these eyes, it looks like a big, fat hit.
Countless films of recent decades have set out to spin a gently subversive fairy tale with a contemporary edge, but few have succeeded as wildly as "Shrek." Conjuring genuine enchantment without quaintness or treacly sentimentality, the 2001 movie enlivened its storybook traditions with rude humor, gleefully anachronistic pop-culture references and knockabout characters brimming with heart. That recipe remains largely intact in "Shrek the Musical," along with much of the irreverent charm that's been successively diluted in two overworked screen sequels. If the storytelling is bumpy in patches and the songs don't quite soar, the show never stints on spectacle or laughs, making it a viable contender for a slice of the Disney market on Broadway.
This first venture for DreamWorks Theatricals (produced in collaboration with Sam Mendes and Caro Newling's Neal Street Prods.) is said to have come in at a budget of $24 million. That lofty price tag is certainly visible in Tim Hatley's designs, which mingle high-tech and low, combining old-style backdrops and ornate frames with pop-up picture-book visuals, puppets and elaborate costumes to create a magical setting.
Unlike other toon-to-tuner translations such as "The Lion King" or "The Little Mermaid," the show favors literal representation over stylized solutions, right down to the fat-suits and green prosthetic head-masks donned by Brian d'Arcy James as Shrek and Sutton Foster as his part-time ogre sweetheart, Princess Fiona. For the most part, the approach works, primarily because any theme-park cutesiness is offset by the mischievous humor in David Lindsay-Abaire's book and lyrics. The production's real achievement, however, is that the busy visuals and gargantuan set-pieces never overwhelm the personalities of the actors or their characters.
The ensemble is talented and the four leads, in particular, couldn't be better.
Sticking to the Scottish accent used by Mike Myers in the movies, d'Arcy James makes the title character an endearing lug whose gruff, standoffish demeanor barely conceals his hunger for love. So reviled by society he feels disqualified from any hope of a fairy-tale romance, this Shrek nonetheless has deep reserves of dignity, honor and compassion underneath the ruffian exterior -- qualities that pour forth in d'Arcy James' expressive baritone.
Foster is given more to do here than in her last turn in "Young Frankenstein," and she runs with it in a hilarious performance that gets better and better as the show goes on. It doesn't require a belching-and-farting contest with Shrek (which we get in their funny one-upmanship duet "I Think I Got You Beat") to prove the princess is no passive fantasy Barbie. Instead, she's a feisty eccentric who's been bored out of her mind by years of isolated confinement and now wants a say in her liberation.
Foster's act-two opener, "Morning Person," is the show's musical and comic highlight, starting with Fiona's wacky interaction with some unsuspecting fauna and spiraling into a full-blown '70s disco production number (think Meryl Streep's musical opener in "Death Becomes Her"), backed by a troupe of tap-dancing forest rodents.
Response was mixed during the show's Seattle tryout to Shrek's wiseass Donkey sidekick, resulting in a new costume concept and the replacement of Chester Gregory with Daniel Breaker. Echoing enough of Eddie Murphy's original take on the character with his own fresh spin, Breaker ("Passing Strange") has terrific energy and fine vocal and physical comedy skills. He establishes a touching buddy bond with the reluctant Shrek, notably in the sweet duet, "Travel Song." If he plays Donkey as a little limp in the hooves, that fits with the wink-wink campiness of Lindsay-Abaire's script, which will sail over tykes' heads but keep adults amused.
That aspect goes into exultant overdrive with height-challenged despot Lord Farquaad (Christopher Sieber), who eyes Fiona as just the beard he needs to secure the throne of Duloc. Performing the entire show on his knees with two artificial mini-legs motoring away in front of him, Sieber's outrageous costume is Hatley's comic masterstroke, and his self-celebratory "What's Up, Duloc?" is a hoot. Desperately overcompensating for his short stature, this maniacal clown milks applause and attention with a mix of flouncing petulance and abusive power.
Lindsay-Abaire embroiders the film's story (itself substantially expanded from William Steig's slender book) only in two significant ways: He shows us a trembling Shrek being shoved at age 7 from the family nest into a hostile world; and he provides a backstory to explain Farquaad's seething resentment toward the fairy-tale creatures he banishes from Duloc.
The basic narrative -- and considerable chunks of dialogue -- remain unchanged. When his tranquility is shattered by an invasion of fairy-tale exiles, Shrek treks to Duloc to demand his swamp back but gets shanghaied by Farquaad into rescuing potential bride Fiona from the tower fortress where she is imprisoned by a fire-breathing dragon (more on that momentarily). En route to Duloc, romance blossoms, but unbeknownst to Shrek, Fiona is cursed to be transformed each day at sunset into an ogre, a spell that can be reversed only with true love's first kiss.
While the first act is peppered with fun vignettes, the show is strongest in act two, when the hero and heroine's emotional entanglements take centerstage.
Where it's weakest -- and could definitely have used a more imaginative Julie Taymor-esque flourish -- is in the challenge of depicting a giant dragon onstage. It doesn't work to switch jarringly to abstract representation, with a massive pink-head puppet, freestanding fins and three girl-group singers all meant to embody a single creature yet lacking any kind of physical connection. (Mirroring its use in "Little Shop of Horrors," "Hairspray" and composer Jeanine Tesori's earlier "Caroline, or Change," the vocal trio works better later on, when Three Blind Mice perform backup for Donkey on "Make a Move.")
Things get even more messy when the dragon pursues the protagonists through the castle before being more or less forgotten until the final scene. The lovestruck she-reptile's unlikely romance with Donkey also gets short shrift here -- in part because he seems to bat for the same team as Farquaad.
But despite its clumsy passages and uneven pacing, Jason Moore's production saunters along agreeably, maximizing the strengths of Lindsay-Abaire's writing and tossing in nods to Broadway shows ("Gypsy," "A Chorus Line," "The Lion King," "Xanadu"), movies ("Babe") and even "Project Runway" terminology (the Big Bad Wolf refers to himself as "a hot tranny mess").
Especially in the fairy-tale creatures' "Freak Flag" anthem, the show pumps up the teen-friendly agenda of outsider acceptance and advocates finding beauty in even the most unconventional-looking folks. That aspect underlines the suspicion that, no less than the Disney shows that are its obvious antecedents, "Shrek" is channeling another verdantly colored megaproduction playing a few blocks away, "Wicked."
Tesori's music also bears occasional resemblance to vintage Stephen Schwartz. While the songs often lack shape, they're never gratingly derivative, benefiting from an eclectic range of retro-flavored funk and soul sounds, and from the oddly syncopated phrasing of Lindsay-Abaire's clever lyrics. Less can be said in favor of Josh Prince's pedestrian choreography, but to quote its opening number, the show creates a "Big Bright Beautiful World" that has much to enjoy.